On Wednesday, May Day, the last of five United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals ratified a new three-year contract with Stop & Shop, following a 10-day strike — one of the largest the U.S. private sector has seen in years. Workers at Local 1459 in Springfield, Mass., voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new contract — in line with near-unanimous approvals by four other locals since the strike ended April 21.
The strike began in the week leading up to Easter, when 31,000 UFCW union members across New England walked off the job after Stop & Shop said it needed to “adapt to market conditions” to compete with behemoths like Walmart and Whole Foods/Amazon. Noting it is the only fully unionized grocery chain in New England, one with a pension plan and above-industry wages, the company proposed raising healthcare premiums, freezing overtime rates for part-time workers (who make up 75% of its workforce) and reducing pension benefits for non-vested employees.
UFCW members viewed these proposals as steps toward a two-tiered workforce, with full-time Stop & Shop employees at one level and part-time workers at another.
“I don’t think it’s right — it should all be equal,” says Mike Landry, an assistant meat manager who’s worked for 37 years at the Northampton store. “That’s why the union is fighting.”
Given the Easter holiday, one of the year’s busiest weeks for grocery shopping, the timing of the strike was particularly rough for Stop & Shop, owned by Dutch retail giant Ahold Delhaize. The company reportedly lost between $90 million and $110 million in sales, or about 3% of projected 2019 profits.
At one Stop & Shop in Northampton, Mass., the supermarket was virtually empty while picketers held signs outside, discouraging shoppers from entering the store. Inside, the bakery was closed, along with the deli, meat and seafood counters. The produce selection was hit or miss. A single-digit skeleton crew of workers outnumbered customers, and only self-service checkout was available. To keep the lights on at the company’s 246 stores in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Stop & Shop brought in replacement workers and sent corporate office employees to man the stores.
The grocery chain also hired temporary truck drivers and warehouse workers after about 1,000 Teamsters union members refused to cross UFCW picket lines. Management had to scramble to get food into stores and trash out the doors.
Ratcheting up pressure on the company was possible thanks to picket line protection language in Teamster contracts, says Sean O’Brien, president of Teamsters Local 25. “We enforced that language — we will never cross a picket line,” O’Brien says. “After their shifts were over, hundreds upon hundreds of Teamsters would go down and walk the picket lines.”
Out on the picket line in Northampton, Susan Jacobsen, 72, a member of UFCW Local 1459, and her colleagues saw solidarity firsthand: Local elected officials and customers joined in. Rabbis across the region told congregations it’s “not kosher” to shop at Stop & Shop ahead of Passover. A handful of U.S. presidential candidates joined picket lines, too. And members of a slew of unions — teachers, nurses, building trades workers and public sector workers — all helped support striking workers by joining picket lines and providing resources, O’Brien says.
“It’s been absolutely fabulous,” says Jacobsen. A bakery worker with Stop & Shop for 21 years, this was her first-ever strike. She picketed every day.
“If you firmly believe in the principles you’re standing for, there’s nothing onerous about it,” Jacobsen says. “People need to stand up for what’s right.”
When asked whether he would vote to ratify a new contract, David Morse, a UFCW Local 371 member in the Northampton store’s seafood department, said he’d be disappointed if future part-time hires see frozen overtime pay or reduced pension benefits. But, “it won’t stop me from voting for it,” he said. “We went through hell just to get what we have.”
When the strike ended, there was plenty for the UFCW to celebrate. Stop & Shop gave up its push to force employees’ spouses to take any health insurance offered by their own employer. The union also said Stop & Shop “kept healthcare affordable” with “low deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.” The new contracts also hold the line on all sick time, personal days and paid holidays for current and future employees — Stop & Shop had wanted to reduce paid holidays and sick days for future employees.
But the company got some of what it wanted as well. New part-time workers won’t see time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays, as current employees do. Instead, they’ll get a premium (e.g., an extra $1.50 per hour the first year) that will grow to a time-and-a-half rate after three years of employment. And then there’s this: The new contracts significantly reduce pension benefits for new part-time hires. While a current part-timer gets $225 per month after working 10 years, a new part-time would get $100, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported.
“It came down to, we had to get people back to work,” Tim Melia, president of Local 328 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. “There were a few things we weren’t that happy with. At the end of the day,” he said, “we had to accept this contract, and it was worth bringing back to the members.”
But across the country, unionized chains are still on the defensive. “There’s nothing left of Shaw’s, A&P, Pathmark, Waldbaum’s, Tops and Grand Union,” industry analyst Burt Flickinger told the Hartford Courant. “The Walmart bear is eating all the union competition.”
“I did this for other people’s children, for my grandchildren,” Jacobsen says as she restocks a shelf with cakes on her first day back at work. “We have got to stop this, putting people in tiny wages with no benefits.”
Jeremy Gantz is an In These Times contributing editor working at Time magazine.